Saturday, May 28, 2022

Interview: Vico Ortiz Talks ‘Our Flag Means Death’, On-Set Vibes, Karaoke, & More! [EXCLUSIVE]

Our Flag Means Death has quickly become one of the most in-demand series to release on a streaming platform since premiering March 4 on HBO Max.

Our Flag Means Death is (on the surface) about pirates, particularly the most fearsome pirate who ever sailed, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), and who some would describe as the worst pirate who ever sailed, the Gentleman Pirate — Stede Bonnet. But pirates are not what this 10-episode series is really about: this series is about love and acceptance, both of oneself and those who are different around us.

One of our editors, Hannah, had a chance to sit down with the incredible Vico Ortiz, who brings Jim to the screen in Our Flag Means Death.

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Note: This interview was edited for clarity.

Nerds & Beyond: Hi, how are you? We are matching [referring to mugs]. What are you drinking? 

Vico Ortiz: Oh, we are! A little morning latte.

Nerds & Beyond: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit and chat with me for a little bit. I’m really excited to pick your brain for a little bit, Vico … and I’m just loving the blue hair by the way!

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Vico Ortiz: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Nerds & Beyond: I really have hair envy right now. 

Vico Ortiz: I normally do silver. This time I was like, “Nah, let’s just try to like go blue and play with the whole blue/teal/orange thing.” And then I realize I have a lot more combinations of that than I thought, so it’s nice too. 

Nerds & Beyond: So jumping into the serious stuff … what really got you involved with Our Flag Means Death? What was it about the project or Jim specifically that made you go, “Yes, I have to be involved in this.” 

Vico Ortiz: Wow! Well, I get the sides and the role description, and immediately I was like, “This is me. I don’t know if they knew that this was me, but this is me.” The audition was due after a couple days, but I knocked it out in a couple hours and I sent it out. The next day I get a callback and I’m laughing now, because I always talk about this with the writers and stuff, but when they sent me the scenes, they also sent me the pilot. I read the pilot and I’m like, “This is so gay,” but I’m queer and I make everything gay in general and I don’t really expect it to go that way. I’m part of the community where we’re used to being queerbaited, so I read the pilot and I’m like, “This is so gay.”

I meet David Jenkins after the callback and we had such a lovely conversation and part of me was like, “Please just give me the part.” But I remember telling him [David] regardless of getting the part or not after we had the chat, I feel that whoever ends up portraying Jim, you’ve really created a space for this person to feel safe in, in this world. So whoever it goes to, they’ll be really happy and whatnot. Then the next day I get the offer and I was like, “Yes!” So literally that’s how it happened … pretty quickly, but knowing that there were writers in the room who are of non-binary/trans experience, knowing that I didn’t have to take on the responsibility of advocating for my character — it was really, really great. I felt very taken care of and it was really nice. 

Nerds & Beyond: Having so many great people in your corner going into a new project must just be a breath of fresh air. 

Vico Ortiz: Very much so. And there’s of course times where you have important conversations, but when you have a space where you already feel safe, it is nice. I’m like, “Yes, let’s hold space for each other and have conversations that are deep and talk about masculinity and femininity and gender and sexuality and the construct of all that stuff.” And that was really cool to come in with that energy already. 

Nerds & Beyond: Yeah. What an incredible space to be a part of with so many open-minded people who are just willing to learn and have so many great conversations and support one another.

Vico Ortiz: Mm-hmm!

Nerds & Beyond: Going into production, did you have any inclination that this series was going to take off the way it has? 

Vico Ortiz: Not at all. Literally, I was having this conversation with a couple of the writers and people from production last week. I’m seeing everyone’s reaction to the show episode by episode, and it was like that for me, too, but instead of watching it, I was reading it. So I read the pilot and in my brain, I’m like, “This is so gay.” I knew my character was gonna be queer from the get-go and that they were gonna explore Oluwande’s love and affection for Jim, regardless of what Jim was wearing or how they were expressing themselves, so I loved that. And obviously, Nathan, who plays Lucius, I was like, “Great, you have the gay scribe.” But then as I’m reading the series and then I read episode either 3 or 4 where Black Pete and Lucius have a moment … I was like, “Okay, this is fun, this is very exciting, there’s more queer people.” Then episode 5 comes in and they have this scene with the moonlight, and I was like, “Interesting…that’s fascinating.” And then as they keep sending us the episodes — they were feeding them ever so slowly — I just wanted to read everything. I was anxiously awaiting for the [next] one to come out. And then when I read episode 9, I was like, “They’re doing it. Literally. I mean, this is happening.” Every actor there is also so comfortable with themselves and their masculinity and their femininity. And a lot of the cast is also very gay, so it’s honestly beautiful. I had no idea it was going to go the way it went and I’m really, really happy that it did, and they didn’t leave us hanging.

Nerds & Beyond: I’m in the community as well, and I will say when I personally got to episode 4, when Edward and Stede first officially meet and Stede is bedridden with Edward leaning over him, I looked at my fiancé, and I was like, “I think they’re gay!” And because we’ve been so conditioned at this point at the same time I was thinking “There’s no way. It’s not happening. They’re not gay. It’s a big show from a big streamer, and it’s never gonna happen.” And then it happened! It was definitely incredible to watch unfold. And as you know and mentioned earlier, there is obviously a lot of queerbaiting that happens in media, so it was very refreshing to see it actually fulfilled in multiple different storylines and not just a background one. It was just very beautiful. 

Vico Ortiz: Yep. I’m right there with you. 

Nerds & Beyond: And there are so many different representations! Jim and Oluwande, Lucius and Black Pete, and then Lucius has this flirtatious nature with basically everyone, and then you get into Edward and Stede.

Vico Ortiz: And even Spanish Jackie with her 20 husbands, that’s polyamory being represented right there! 

Nerds & Beyond: Just so much nice representation wrapped up in this beautiful little blanket. I just loved it so much. Moving on, what do you see as the next steps for Jim? Obviously, Jim is now being forced to be in Blackbeard’s new crew, and they also have to respond to Oluwande being stranded with the majority of The Revenge’s crew. 

Vico Ortiz: I love that. Well, first of all, crossing fingers that we get to explore that … I’m like still very much “Hashtag Renew Our Flag Means Death” [#RenewOurFlagMeansDeath on Twitter]. It’s funny, ’cause the moment the Blackbeard people started to come through on set, I was like, “Dang, why isn’t Jim on the Blackbeard crew?” I was like, “I wanna wear a leather. I wanna look cool like that. I would be a great asset.” But I didn’t even know that was going to happen, so as I’m reading episode 10, I’m like, “Oh … it’s kind of not voluntarily.”

Nerds & Beyond: The other shoe has dropped. 

Vico Ortiz: Exactly! I was really hoping that it was gonna be, but then I realize now I have to deal with Oluwande. I mean, I see Jim as someone who’s very much focused on survival instincts, so there’s part of me that is like, “Okay, maybe Jim will play enough along to get close enough to maybe twist and turn something and rescue Olu or maybe Lucius,” — I’m very much hoping Lucius is not dead. I think I’m there with the fandom and hoping Lucius is hanging off the side of the ship somewhere. I don’t know where, but I don’t want Lucius to be dead either, so crossing fingers Lu is alive. So if that’s the case, grab Frenchie, grab Lucius, then find some sort of way to rescue the rest of us [the crew].

There’s also a part of me that really wants to explore the relationship with Jim and Izzy. Jim and Izzy don’t really have any interactions in the first season, and there is something about seeing the perils of these characters, right? Jim is the skilled fighter of Stede’s crew, and then Izzy is the skilled fighter of Blackbeard’s, so what happens when you have these two very guarded characters who are very skilled at fighting together? Maybe they try to one up each other and prove who is the best one at doing things. And then in that struggle, they somehow find a way to open up, the same way that Oluwande opens up Jim, and Jim opens up Izzy. But I don’t know. There’s also a part of me that is like, “What if there’s an army of knife-throwing nuns,” you know? Just a random side episode or even side scene of them badass training nuns and all those shenanigans. 

Nerds & Beyond: So … that would just be incredible. Now I’m sitting here envisioning that scene with just a bunch of knife-throwing nuns. 

Vico Ortiz: Maybe they’re the ones that help rescue the crew! I have no idea how, now I’m just adding random tangent stories.

Nerds & Beyond: Anything is possible with storytelling and that’s why it’s so fun. 

Vico Ortiz: Indeed! Indeed. 

Nerds & Beyond: I’m gonna get into the fandom a bit more later, but I did want to ask if you have seen any theories or head cannons about Jim or any of the other characters that you’ve adopted? 

Vico Ortiz: Well, because I dressed up like Izzy in a cosplay, now I’m seeing a lot of people like, “What if like Jim dresses up like Izzy and tries to steal his clothes and starts making fun of him?” And I’m thinking that would be really fun to do, and part of me has been practicing the Izzy voice just to see if that were to happen, be like *impersonating Con O’Neill as Izzy Hands* “Stede fucking Bonnet!” but like really fuck with him.

Nerds & Beyond: Uhm, wow! That was a really good Izzy impersonation, kudos for that.

Vico Ortiz: Thank you. Thank you. I’ve been practicing. Oh, I also loved the story of Black Pete whittling Jim a pecker. And also I’m seeing everyone making Roach the top surgeon of the ship. And, I don’t know if I’ll have top surgery any time, so thinking what if we’re five seasons deep on the show and halfway through that I’m like, “Chop, chop,” and that could be addressed on the show or not really. But it’s like maybe you see a scar here somewhere and you just know … that was Roach. I was like, “Oh, thank you, internet for helping me have that option.”

Because before I was like, “What would happen if one season I no longer … you know? How is that gonna look? How is that gonna pan out?” And then after being online being like, “Oh, thanks, internet, Roach did it.” So, those are the ones that I feel like I’m picking up. And the teal that I confirmed … that teal is the color of Oluwande’s earring and Jim hasn’t really ever thought about favorite colors, so seeing someone really taking care of them and being a safe space for them to rely on and starting to associate that color with Olu.

Nerds & Beyond: I remember seeing that you confirmed that on my timeline and I think I may have shed a tear. Every time someone from the crew makes me emotional on Twitter though, I think how much more emotional it must have been to actually film the scenes.

Vico Ortiz: There are so many moments where the show is really funny — there’s a lot of humor on the show. For a very humorous show, there are a lot of moments that will really just be like, “Oh, that’s really sweet. That’s really tender.” Making you feel touched or tear up … And I was like, “Oh yeah, this is intense…and humorous as well.” So, I love that the show has that balance. 

Nerds & Beyond: Yeah. That’s a very hard thing to accomplish — those emotional deep dives being balanced with the perfect amount of humor. We’ve gotten to see a lot of behind-the-scenes photos and videos that were taken by various cast and crew, and the set looks just like the most fun place to be in the world. How would you describe the general vibe on set? 

Vico Ortiz: It was really silly. It really was just a silly lot of us. Yeah. We would get goofier and goofier the longer the hours [were]. It was really fun, too, because with the first month and a half, almost two months, of the shoot, I had the beard and the nose, right? And I’m a very smiley person. I love chatting. For a good chunk of the shoot, I was more on the quieter side, just because every time I like laughed they would have to reapply the glue. And I was like, “I don’t want alcohol and glue over and over on my mouth.” So I just smirked and was very observant. But the second that was all off, everyone was like, “Wow, Vico, you’re a little spazz.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve just been out here meditating this whole time.”

But truly it was just honestly really silly. It’s a lot of grown adults being kids and having fun. A lot of funny moments. Now I’m trying to remember a specific time, but I mean my cheeks were constantly just hurting because I was always smiling and really excited. And then whenever I had to be on in character, Jim couldn’t just be smiling all of the time. You have to say, “Okay, breathe,” and then just be in a corner, watching and lurking. 

Nerds & Beyond: I do love the Jim scenes — there might really only be one where they have the beard still, but we get a little smile in Spanish Jackie’s because they are very excited to be taunting Spanish Jackie. I love that scene because I was like, “There is something more to this character that they haven’t really showed us yet.” 

Vico Ortiz: That scene was a fun time. 

Nerds & Beyond: I thought that whole scene just looked really fun to be on. I mean, who doesn’t love Fred Armisen. He’s hilarious.

Vico Ortiz: Oh, yes!

Nerds & Beyond: Really everyone involved with that scene is hilarious. I don’t know how anyone could have been in that environment without breaking into laughter constantly. 

Vico Ortiz: Improv on improv. I feel like I was pretty good at not breaking during the scene, but like … the improv. I mean, there were so many moments. They would do the scene like once or twice, as scripted, and then between Taika and Rhys it would just grow. Everyone had bits and moments they just went off and it’s like, “Oh my God, where are we going?” And you just keep following the scene. It was so great.

Nerds & Beyond: I love figuring out which moments are improv and getting official confirmation about which scenes were improvised. 

Vico Ortiz: Chunks. 

Nerds & Beyond: Yeah?

Vico Ortiz: A good chunk of it was. Yeah. So it’s pretty dope to see.  

Nerds & Beyond: You said you didn’t break a lot. Who did? 

Vico Ortiz: Samson broke a lot. Samson broke a lot. Everyone can confirm that. Samson was the one that was constantly just in the little corner giggling. And we’re all like “Breathe.” It really did help having the beard and the hat. I always used the hat. If I ever had to like laugh a little bit, I would just dip the hat a little bit and smile and then go back to normal.

Nerds & Beyond: Composure. 

Vico Ortiz: Right. You know, everything is fine. 

Nerds & Beyond: What amazing props to have when you need to hide that you’re laughing. They’ve both already been mentioned, but I did want to ask you what was the experience like working with Taika and David? 

Vico Ortiz: So Taika, I’ve been describing him as working with the Mary Poppins bag where it’s just an average-looking bag, and then you open it, and all of a sudden it’s just everything that you could ever possibly think of can come out of it. Heavy things, little trinkets, things that you were like, “How did that even get there in the first place?” His creativeness knows no bounds, and it’s really beautiful to witness both as a director and as an actor. I love how he directs in the way that he just keeps the camera rolling and juices every single juice that could ever possibly come out of the moment and the scene. He builds on the momentum rather than stopping and going, stopping and going, stopping and going. He just starts and then allows everything to build, and build, and build. He gets a lot of juicy stuff from moments or in-between moments, which I think was really, really cool to witness. And you see it on camera when he’s directing and similarly also when he’s acting. I mean, cameras roll and it’s just like he creates a whole world right then and there, and it’s really cool to see. You throw something and Taika … rolls with it and just throws something else back. And to see that happening it’s just really, really cool to witness.

David is also an absolute sweetheart and someone that you literally can just text and be like, “I feel XYZ” and we’ll chat and have a sit down to talk. It’s really, really awesome to have that energy as someone who’s a showrunner. It’s nice to have that energy on a set like this with so many talented people, both in front and behind the camera, being super receptive. I mean, I didn’t really do a lot in terms of like Jim’s identity per-se, because I liked the script, and how it was written and it felt good. Reading it was just like, “I love this.” The only thing that I added was more Spanish, and David was like, “Love it, here for it.” A couple of the writers are Latiné, and my first language is Spanish, so I said if I ever feel angry, frustrated, scared, I want to express it in Spanish, right? Or when I’m writing the journal — originally that was in English. And I was like, “If I’m writing, I would be writing in Spanish.” So I translated the whole thing into Spanish. David was like, “Yeah, I love that. Let’s keep that going.”

They’re both very “Yes, and?” people, which feels very theater in a way. I remember talking about that to Taika as well. After we shot the pilot, I was like, “I really enjoy how you have this theater energy.” When he comes to set, it’s very collaborative, very ensemble, you know? Very understanding that every little detail will come together and tell the whole story, and it’s not just like focusing on this one thing … everything means something. And that’s really cool. 

Nerds & Beyond: That sounds amazing. Of course, it’s always nice to have people who are, like I said earlier, in your corner and really supporting your vision for your character as well. I’ve done the more serious questions, now I’m gonna get into some more fun stuff — particularly about the fandom. I love logging into Twitter every day now. The art and the video edits, and then I’ve seen some poetry pop up and it’s incredible, so I wanted to ask you what that has felt like for you to watch unfold as the series progressed.

Vico Ortiz: It’s truly fascinating. Similarly, before the show I was not on Twitter, except every now and then I would check mainly just the Euphoria tweets because they were really fun. So that was it for me. Then all of a sudden everything exploded, and same with TikTok. I’m not verified on TikTok, which I kind of love because I’m just out there cruising and just living my best life. But people are catching on that I’m there, so they’re tagging me in videos and asking questions, and I’m trying as much as possible to answer as many without saying things I shouldn’t, because I also don’t know if we’re gonna have a second season or not, and I’m not a writer or a producer on the show — so I don’t really know. So I’m trying to confirm as much as possible without also giving people like, “Oh, it’s actually gonna happen.” I actually don’t know.

I wish that somehow the notifications could happen slower because I want to see as much as possible and see the photos and see the art. I like as many as I can because there’s so many beautiful things. It’s just everywhere and I love it all. But now I’m missing some things and I’m like, “Ah, no, I wanna see it.” Asking someone to tag me on it so I can check it out later and whatnot. It’s also truly wonderful what people will notice after seeing the series for the fourth or fifth time. There was a moment in episode 6 — “The Art of Fuckery” — where Izzy and Stede have their little fight. In the background, I’m looking at Stede, trying to give him pointers on how to fucking fight Izzy and it’s a very quick, half a second moment. And people are like, “Wait a minute … is Jim trying to …?” And I was like, “Yeah, that was what’s happening!” So it’s really cool to see what people are noticing in the details of other moments. 

Nerds & Beyond: I love seeing people pick out very specific details, too. I know people have been pointing out a lot of Nathan’s facial expressions in backgrounds as well. 

Vico Ortiz: Oh my gosh. Yes. Nathan is freaking hilarious. 

Nerds & Beyond: The memes have started. They are in full force now. Don’t be surprised when you start seeing more and more of those.

Vico Ortiz: I’m excited to check them out, because honestly I was like, “Watch out.” I was like, “Nathan, you’re gonna be gif central,” because there are so many beautiful moments of just Lucius making the best facial expressions.

Nerds & Beyond: Right? I’m glad you brought up your TikTok a bit ago because my next question mentions your TikTok. So the internet has been buzzing for a while now that if there is a future season or multiple of the series that they really, really, want to see a musical-inspired episode. I know you have the dance moves for it because I’ve seen your TikTok, but what would your feelings about a musical inspired Our Flag Means Death episode be? 

Vico Ortiz: I would love to. I would absolutely love to. I mean, there was already a jam room on the first season. A lot of us, off camera, we’ll start singing and then people just chime in. So we have the means and the musical talent in the cast to really lean into a musical episode. Also sea shanties! It doesn’t need to be a very “musical” musical type. It can just be a sea shanties episode. It’s established that Ed can play the piano. We can really lean into that and it’s gonna be fine. And I love a musical, so like I’m very much into that idea. 

Nerds & Beyond: I didn’t plan on asking this question but now I have to: what is your favorite musical? 

Vico Ortiz: Oh my God. I guess it could count as a musical because it is on Broadway. My favorite movie of all time is Moulin Rouge! and I have not seen the musical on Broadway yet, but I’ve seen the clips and videos and I’ve listened to the soundtrack and I’m obsessed with it. I’m Puerto Rican, so I love In the Heights because it touches certain parts of me that I’m here for. I love karaoke. I love doing the “Elephant Medley” by myself and switch pitches between parts. It’s my favorite gender euphoria moment.

Nerds & Beyond: That is an impressive favorite karaoke song and move — what a power move going up to karaoke and being like, “I’m singing a duet by myself.” So now we’re talking about music and that leads perfectly into the next question — if Jim were around in the modern day and age, what would their current favorite song be? 

Vico Ortiz: Oh wow!

Nerds & Beyond: It’s a hard question.

Vico Ortiz: Wow. That would be really … wow, that’s a fun question. That’s a fun one. For some reason, the only song that is popping in my brain right now is “Telepatiía” by Kali Uchis, which is like modern day, but I’m also thinking of how Jim is at the end with Olu and they’re technically now long distance. So the song is about connecting with your lover through telepathy. I love music, but even if I love a song, I don’t know who sings it. I don’t know the name of the song or the album. I kind of just roll with life.

Nerds & Beyond: You live life on shuffle.

Vico Ortiz: That! Yes! I live life on shuffle. Yeah.

Nerds & Beyond: So my last question, because Zoom is going to kick us off! I saw you recently requested a specific edit on Twitter from the fandom, and I know how much the fandom loved and appreciated that you would do that. So, I wanted to ask you if there’s anything else that you’ve got some burning desire to see?

Vico Ortiz: Oh my God. Honestly, I’m really happy with where people are taking Jim and the expression and everything. I’m loving when I see Jim with scars on their chest and the orange. I think I mentioned on a TikTok or a tweet, I forget which side I did it … but oranges are part of Jim’s grief and reclaiming that story for themselves. It’s really awesome to see how involved the oranges are in Jim’s artwork because it is of that, right? You’re gonna live with grief for the rest of your life and it comes up in different ways. I love that it’s like Jim is embracing that as part of their journey.

I’m also loving what I’m seeing with Jim, Jackie, and Olu — like triad moments because I was definitely trying to ramp up my sapphicness on the scenes with Spanish Jackie and see where this could potentially go. She’s already got, well, now she’s got 18, but you know, she’s got a lot of partners. So, Jim and Olu could fill up those 19th and 20th spots, if that’s ever something that can happen. It’s truly been really beautiful what I’m seeing. The artwork is stunning. It really is stunning. I really want a tattoo now. I’m like, “I wanna have a tattoo of the orange and the dagger and some teal.” But I’m going to wait to see if we have a second season, and then maybe get a tattoo in a place that it’s not gonna add another half hour on the makeup chair so it can get covered. 

Nerds & Beyond: Well, if and when we get a season 2 renewal, I will absolutely be waiting for Vico tattoo post.

Vico Ortiz: For sure, for sure. Even my dad who doesn’t have a tattoo is like, “I wanna get a tattoo.” And I was like, “Sir.” Okay, all right. Yeah, get a tattoo of my character. Sounds great to me. I was talking about this with another person from the crew. The good thing about Our Flag Means Death tattoos is it’s pirate related, so they could literally be just a pirate tattoo, but you know the meaning and you know what’s behind it. 

Nerds & Beyond: That reminds me of something I wrote when I reviewed the series; I mentioned that on the surface, the show is about pirates. But when you look further than that, it’s about so much more and so many more beautiful themes and topics that you would never have expected to be explored in a show about pirates. I just can’t give you enough massive kudos to you for your performance and to the entire crew for how amazing the show turned out. It was really, like I said, just amazing to watch unfold. Obviously, we all need to keep the Renew Our Flag Means Death hashtag going.

Vico Ortiz: Absolutely. The power of the community is incredible. The fact that we are still trending for me is like — “What?” And now with TikTok, seeing there’s been over a million uses of the hashtag I’m like, “What in the world?” I would’ve never thought this making this series, but now here we are. 

Nerds & Beyond: That must be an amazing feeling for you and everyone else involved. Again, my utmost congratulations on the series, and I will be manifesting a season 2.

Vico Ortiz: Yes. Thank you. Thank you so, so much. Right there with you.

Nerds & Beyond: Thank you again for your time, and I hope to talk to you again sometime in the future. 

Vico Ortiz: Yes. And hopefully it’s like this time but for a second season! Thank you, Hannah.

Our Flag Means Death is available to stream now on HBO Max.

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